A year ago, Donald Glover was not a name anyone would associate with rap. A talented comedic writer and actor, of course, but not a rapper. He’s best known for his work with the sketch comedy group “Derrick Comedy” and shows like “30 Rock,” “The Daily Show,” and “Community.” While all of this was going on, he was quietly producing and recording music since 2008 under the nom-de-rap “Childish Gambino.”
Childish Gambino’s latest release, “Camp,” showcases Glover’s genuine talent for songwriting and rapping. Glover has long dealt with questions about the legitimacy of his rap career, as with most actors seeking to begin recording music. While on earlier mix tapes Glover seemed to have been bogged down by these questions, “Camp” continues the evolution demonstrated in his last two releases, “Culdesac” and “EP.” On “Camp” as on those two albums, he moves past these superficial insecurities and delivers a stunning and mature album. “Camp” explores the same issues of identity present in Glover’s earlier releases, but he deals with identity in a much more developed way by singing about race, his childhood, and loneliness.
While Glover writes and sings about himself extensively on “Camp,” it never feels self-adulating or compensatory. Rather, his storytelling feels sincere and heartfelt in a way mainstream rap rarely does. For instance, on opening track “Outside,” Glover raps at length about childhood and life in the projects. He talks specifically about his cousin: “He lookin’ at me now, like / ‘Why you so fuckin’ lucky?’ / I had a father too, / But he ain’t around so I’mma take it out on you.’” There are no cheesy synth notes or horns; the beat is tastefully produced, with piano to underscore the soft parts and sparing use of bass throughout—a significant departure from the assaultive, bass n’ synth–heavy production dominating hip-hop.
“Camp” is built around a loose narrative about Glover attending summer camp and meeting a girl. “Kids (Keep Up)” is a surprisingly tender reflection on the differences between childhood affections and adult relationships. Glover sings as a naïve kid during the hooks, “If we were kids, I’d want to give you everything that you would want,” and raps as a jaded adult during the verses, “There any breakage in that Trojan? / She see what she wanna see, so I make her take plan B in front of me.” It also features quite a bit of Glover’s singing, which, like his rapping, is improbably successful. His voice is soft and floats to reach high notes with ease, and contrasts with his sharp, staccato flow during the verses. This tension mirrors the dichotomy between the tone of the lyrics in the hook and verses.
Not every track on “Camp” is similarly pensive. “Bonfire” is the first single off the record, and with good reason. It trades the frank self-reflection of the other tracks for aggressive, straightforward rap. He doesn’t sing or have any orchestral arrangements to distract from his rap, and this sparseness is justified by the sheer strength of his lyrics. He lets loose with his lethal, engagingly complex wordplay. He raps, “I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA,” and “Cause all I did was act me like a Looney Tune.” The track is reminiscent of Kanye West’s “POWER,” with the choir repeating notes ominously over chords from a distorted electric guitar. What Glover adds is his precise and hard-hitting flow, as he delivers line after line without losing an ounce of energy during the song.
On “Camp,” Donald Glover shows that Childish Gambino is not a puerile side project or cheap attempt to cash in on his fame. On the record, Glover sings on almost every track and steps away from the usual clichés of hip-hop in order to share some real pain and sentiment. The album closes with “That Power,” which begins conventionally enough, with about three minutes of standard rap and hooks. Then it shifts to a four-minute monologue about Glover leaving the titular summer camp. He makes himself emotionally vulnerable, both to the girl he is addressing in the monologue and to the listener. His speech concludes an album filled with the sort of mature self-examination painfully absent from most albums of any genre. He says in the outro, “I told you something. It was just for you, and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middleman, make it all for everybody, always...But this means there isn’t a place in my life for you or someone like you. Is it sad? Sure. But it’s a sadness I chose.” Donald Glover ends the album on a bittersweet note, but one that affirms—like his work in any medium—his driving passion.